The long read: Henry Kissinger was right – it is time for US to build bridges with China

The author of a new book about East/West relations argues that building trust and not engaging with old fears is the best way to deal with the ascendent superpower.

Russian and Chinese state energy company chiefs sign a supply agreement as the countries’ leaders look on.  Alexey Druginyn / RIA Novosti
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American political hawks, most of whom can be found in the conservative camp, think belligerence is the best way to approach China. Harking back to the successful defeat of their country’s Cold War opponent, the Soviet Union, some US politicians would like to directly confront China. Among this “do or die” faction are various Republican candidates for the US presidency, including Donald Trump, who claims he would not have invited President Xi Jinping to a state dinner last month, but to a McDonald’s.

Those who agree with Trump believe President Barack Obama is not taking a hard enough line now that a coalition between China and Russia is emerging, with presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi agreeing on most issues. Together they have thwarted the US by blocking UN Security Council resolutions on, for example, intervention against Bashar Al Assad in Syria. Against this “alignment of the world’s two leading anti-western powers”, as a conservative commentator put it last month, Obama is urged to form a bloc of democracies with the aim of containing China.

History was very nearly so different. When Obama came into office in 2009, he was a strong proponent of a “G2 model” of the US and China tackling world problems together. He welcomed “China’s efforts to play a greater role on the world stage” and expressed a willingness to make room for the new superpower. The American–Chinese relationship would be the “landmark bilateral relationship of the 21st century”, which is why he favoured coordinated action. Then as now, his political opponents condemned his position as soft on China, but Obama ignored them, trying to manoeuvre China towards the US standpoint on a range of issues, from global warming and nuclear weapons in Iran to the uprising in Syria.

To this end he invested in nine meetings with his then counterpart, Hu Jintao. But to the frustration of the US government, success and a policy tilt to Asia proved elusive.

Former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao actually admitted that he did not believe in the G2 concept. “Some have floated the idea that America and China are going to rule the world together. It is a false and unreasonable idea,” he told western journalists.

During Obama’s first term in office, the G2 notion gradually receded into the background. There was a brief revival in the summer of 2013, at least in the media, when Obama and the new Chinese president met for a two-day summit “with their shirtsleeves rolled up” at the Sunnylands estate in California. But this has not led to a rapprochement. China was notable in its absence in this week’s announcement on the Trans-Pacific Trade agreement, a free-trade pact brokered by the US between 12 countries after five years of negotiations.

However, the lines of communication are still open and this approach has a supporter in Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state and founding father of American rapprochement with China. Instead of bloc formation to constrain Chinese ambition, Kissinger urged in his 2012 book On China for a "Pacific community", a political alliance in which both superpowers participate. In Foreign Affairs (April 2012), he cautioned against "a new version of historic patterns of international rivalry" and recommends "a genuine effort at cooperation". China and the US "owe it to themselves, and the world, to make an effort" to transcend their rivalry, he wrote.

In a debate on these terms I tend to agree with Kissinger. His statement is not a result of idealism in his old age. True to his vision of global politics, Kissinger’s conclusion stems from an analysis of the balance of power. The US will never manage to do to China what it did to the Soviet Union, by bringing about the break-up of the country. The reasons are many but, above all, economic in nature. China’s economy is so much stronger than the Soviet Union’s ever was that there is simply no comparison. Its importance for western companies, both as the workplace of the world and as a destination for their products, has created a dependency that was entirely absent in the case of the former Soviet Union. More interdependency has been created by Chinese sovereign wealth funds, which have invested heavily in the sovereign bonds of a great number of western nations, first and foremost the US.

Given the links between the West and China, breaking them would hit the West hard. As Kissinger argued with respect to the US: “A prolonged confrontation between China and the United States would alter the world economy with unsettling consequences for all.”

If confrontation, then, is not an option, cooperation is the only way forward – and some form of trust would be very helpful. But despite all the warm words expressed during Xi’s US visit a few weeks ago, one can hardly be optimistic about the underlying mood on either side. In the eyes of most western policymakers, the Chinese president has turned out to be far more nationalistic and confrontational than they would have wished. His attitude in the Pacific region, where China is trying to get the upper hand by changing the facts on the ground by building on the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, is often cited as proof.

Similarly, Chinese policymakers remain suspicious of the West. When Chinese leaders visit Europe or the US, there are no signs of their anti-western stance. Instead they are all sweetness and light, full of fine words about shared interests and harmony between the respective nations. But during Xi Jinping’s first year in power, a confidential party memo, Document No. 9, was leaked. The bland title concealed a hard, anti-western message, admonishing the party apparatus “concerning the situation in the ideological sphere”. It turns out there are no fewer than “seven dangerous western values” currently threatening China. Among them are virtually all the principles that underpin the West’s social structure: constitutional democracy, including the separation of powers and independent judiciaries; the universal value of human rights; civil society; and media independence. It also called on party members to strengthen their resistance to “infiltration” by outside ideas.

While it is not entirely certain whether the document came straight from the horse’s mouth, Xi himself, it is not improbable either. A party memo such as Document No. 9 says more about the leadership’s thinking than all the diplomatic clichés on international trips to the West.

Where does this confrontational thinking among Chinese leaders come from? It might largely be forgotten by most westerners, but the “19th century of humiliation”, in which China was in large parts occupied by western powers, is still very much in the Chinese mindset.

A great world power for centuries, China was defeated during the Opium Wars – and one could argue that only now that China is reinventing itself as a superpower is it recovering from these wounds, inflicted by Britain and France in particular. A sense of inferiority was the result of this unfortunate – and for both sides shameful – episode. For the Chinese at least, this sentiment of defeat is muddled with a long-standing sense of superiority. “Why associate with the rest of mankind”, was for a very long time the natural state of mind, underpinned by China’s immense wealth and advanced technology. Today, the Chinese have to manage this contradiction. In their efforts to communicate, it does not help that they in turn find people at the opposite side of the table who tend to feel themselves superior to the Chinese, both in terms of values and the political system they propagate.

Especially suspicious are Chinese policymakers of American geopolitical intentions. Their prevailing view of the future remains: “as China rises, the United States will resist.” It is not difficult to understand this perspective, looking for instance at the failed American efforts to keep its western allies away from the new, Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Or given the defensive attitude of the US towards Chinese claims in the South China Sea.

Still, for both countries efforts at cooperation remain preferable to the path of confrontation. Steps towards the containment of China are, in my view, counterproductive and will only play into the hands of the hardliners in Beijing and increase the chances of a Cold War 2.0, with disastrous consequences for both sides. Striving for the other extreme, a G2, as Obama tried in his first years, is too ambitious in the light of the disparate strategies and interests. But when interests converge, there may be room for collaboration. This is particularly true in the economic sphere, where there is a common interest in stable financial markets and open trade, but also in the realm of climate change there is some ground for optimism.

To my mind, Xi and Obama understand the wisdom of Kissinger’s observation that a Cold War between China and the West would be detrimental to both – and their recent rhetoric makes this clear. But that does not imply they will be able to deepen their cooperation. Obama keeps on resisting Xi’s call for a “new model of major country relations”, a debate that would put the Asian strategic interests of both countries on the table. Avoiding this debate and holding on to the status quo is seen as more in the US’s interest. However, Xi is probably right when he indicates that “the growing trend towards a multipolar world will not change”, a reference to the Chinese view that America’s post-Cold War role as the sole superpower is drawing to a close.

According to the Australian China expert Hugh White in his book The China Choice, the US has little alternative but to share power with China in Asia, at some point in the future. I tend to agree with him. Avoidance of hostility may well be the best the West and China can achieve in the years ahead. All efforts at cooperation will primarily serve that purpose.

In this respect the improved relationship between the American and Chinese militaries is encouraging; contact has been established at the highest level and information has been exchanged. Whether the minimum target of avoiding hostility will be achieved depends on the extent to which both parties manage to curb their assertiveness and suspicion. The decisive factor will be the psychological condition that underpins mutual contacts. Insecurity dominates on both sides.

The insecurity felt by westerners in relation to China has been provoked by fear for job losses as a result of increasing Chinese competitiveness – southern Europe already experienced the effects at the beginning of this century when China entered the World Trade Organisation and flooded markets with cheap Chinese products at the expense of small manufacturers in Southern Europe. What would happen to the rich part of Europe and the US if China were truly to become a knowledge economy? These worries have somewhat abated now that China is experiencing economic problems of its own and its leadership seems far less deft in handling the economy than many in the West supposed. Still, it would be wrong for the West to count China out as a future knowledge economy; the country will deliver proof of its capabilities in the air and in space (by competing successfully with Boeing and Airbus, for example). Western fears may then erupt again.

On the part of the Chinese an even stronger feeling of insecurity can be felt, as the leadership refrains from opening up the economy to foreign competition. Western companies are denied access in vital areas, such as IT (as Google, Facebook and the likes can testify). Negotiations over investment treaties with both the US and Europe proceed painstakingly slowly because of these sensitivities.

Given the many differences, mutual recognition of these handicaps could go some way towards facilitating the process of cooperation in all areas where this is possible. Understanding and respect are the basic ingredients. It is vital to understand that China’s ample suspicions about the West’s intentions meet their match in the West’s suspicions about China’s intentions. In my experience, interviewing a wide variety of people about China, from students to entrepreneurs to scholars, westerners find it just as hard to suppress those feelings when they judge both Chinese people and events. Even those who are determined not to lapse into “enemy” thinking are often guilty of it and end up oscillating between suspicion and trust.

There is no harm in nurturing some fears, if only to avoid the pitfall of naivety. In view of the tensions and conflicts, from land grabs to cybersecurity alerts that the world will be facing in the next few years, an arms-length attitude will stand both in good stead. The creation of trust, however, is a very different matter. It requires the necessary readiness to listen to the other. In light of the negative attitudes cherished on all sides, that will be no easy feat.

Fokke Obbema is author of China and the West, Hope and Fear in the Age of Asia (IB Tauris, 2015) and a journalist with the Dutch daily newspaper de Volkskrant.